ESP Research Lab Closes After 28 Years

The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab — or PEAR — is closing later this month, after 28 years of investigating how human thoughts can influence physical reality. Its findings were largely rejected by the scientific community. Robert Siegel talks with laboratory manager Brenda Dunne.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

SIEGEL: A unique lab at Princeton University is shutting down, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory, the PEAR lab is its acronym. It's spent 28 years investigating the influence of human thoughts on physical reality. It would be an exaggeration to say that they've been bending spoons with their thoughts, but they have been trying to document more modest, measurable effects of mind over matter. And despite some ferocious criticism from skeptics, they claim some success.

Psychologist Brenda Dunne is the laboratory manager and joins us from Princeton. Welcome to the program.

Dr. BRENDA DUNNE (PEAR, Princeton University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And perhaps you can describe for us a device that I've read about in reading about the lab's experiments, the random event generator.

Dr. DUNNE: Okay. Well, the random event generator is just what it sounds like. It's a little micro electronic device that produces random numbers. Imagine flipping a coin 1,000 times a second and looking at 200 such flips and seeing how many heads you've gotten. And the machine just produces this random output, and the human operators attempt to influence that process to produce more, if you will, more heads or more tails alternately.

SIEGEL: By being told to either think high or think low.

Dr. DUNNE: Yes. And we have found over tens of millions of these trials that the results do produce a very persuasive case for there being a small but highly significant effect between people's intentions and the way these machines behave that can't be explained away by chance.

SIEGEL: Now, you and the lab's founder, Dr. Robert Jahn, both feel that you have, you established these three-year experiments at this -

Dr. DUNNE: Yes, we do.

SIEGEL: There are people out there who feel this is just voodoo and that -

Dr. DUNNE: I'm sure there are.

SIEGEL: - not science and -

Dr. DUNNE: Most of them have not bothered to look at the data, however.

SIEGEL: Well, but other universities have not rush to match what Princeton's doing and have similar laboratories.

Dr. DUNNE: Most universities don't like dealing with this topic. Princeton itself has not been overjoyed with it. And, you know, it's been one of the reasons that we feel that we need to get on and go elsewhere, is because the next level or the next era of questions will require a more interdisciplinary approach.

SIEGEL: But it would seem that the possibility of attracting people from different disciplines would be far greater at Princeton, whether any interest in doing that, than going outside. You're also equally likely to attract nightclub musicians, carnival acts, cranks and mystiques.

Dr. DUNNE: Well, we're not trying to attract. We already have a community of people who have been our colleagues over the years. And it is a select community of people we know well.

SIEGEL: You know, I was just thinking that a venue where one should experience the impact of extremely partial, result-directed thought on physical reality would be a ballpark. If there were 50,000 people in a baseball stadium and 40,000 of them wanting very badly for the ball to do the same thing, in theory they might have some serious home team advantage.

Dr. DUNNE: That, well, there does seem to be such a thing as a home team advantage. In fact, a fellow from up at Harvard recently published an articled called "The Joy of Sox" here.

SIEGEL: He's referring to the Red Sox.

Dr. DUNNE: Yes. And, you know, in which he actually had interviewed Professor Jahn and he's been able to show that there does seem to be something to the home team advantage.

SIEGEL: Do you think that there are colleagues at Princeton who look toward at the end of the month when the laboratory relieved and saying at last they're gone, and that we're back to the real science and engineering?

Dr. DUNNE: I know there are but, you know, there are other colleagues at Princeton who quietly come up to us and say, you know, I think this is really important stuff. I'm glad you've the courage to pursue it.

SIEGEL: Those must be the Red Sox fans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DUNNE: Or the Tigers fans perhaps.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. DUNNE: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Brenda Dunne, who is the manager of the of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory, the PEAR Lab, which will be closing down at Princeton at the end of the month.

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